Heading North

Black Turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala)

When I was a kid, I used to love playing tag with the waves, running in when they receded and scampering out just ahead of their onrush. These birds reminded me of that game. On a day with a stiff northwesterly breeze and agitated water, they stood out fearlessly on little rocky promontories, ignored waves that lightly showered them, and jumped to a higher perch a split second ahead of a bigger wave that would have knocked them down. Although their feet aren’t webbed, they can swim if they have to. They’re infinitely familiar with surf, spending practically their whole lives on the vibrant edge of water and land. Unlike some other species that breed across wide areas of the sub-arctic, Black Turnstones do their breeding in a narrow strip of coast along the northwest shores of Alaska.

In winter they migrate south as far as Baja California, and we see them regularly on a stopover during that trip. This month our North Basin serves as rest and refueling stop on their journey back up to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a voyage of nearly 2,500 miles “as the crow flies.” They’ll stop several more times, arriving some time in May. I saw a flock of perhaps two dozen here, but arrived at that number only when by carelessness I disturbed them and they flew off a short distance. Counting them as they foraged in the rocks, I saw just half a dozen or so. As a brilliant video by James Kusz here demonstrated, these birds are practically invisible in dark rocky habitat. It’s believed that they fly by day and stay just a dozen feet or so above the water, but details remain lacking.

Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala)

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